It is not uncommon for Social Security Disability (“SSD”) claims to get denied; indeed, more than half of SSD applications are denied. Many claimants, perhaps due to ignorance of their rights or sheer lack of willingness to put in the effort, do not challenge/appeal the denials of their SSD claims. For those claimants who do appeal get the opportunity to present their case to an administrative law judge during a SSD administrative law hearing. This hearing is well worth the effort because, statistically, those who appeal the denials have a notably higher chance of getting their SSD claims approved.
However, the appeal process is not a “cakewalk.” For most SSD claimants, the day of the administrative law hearing is the culmination of a long, arduous and stressful process. You have been previously denied disability benefits but now have this opportunity to present your claim before an administrative law judge. It can be critical to the success of your claim to know what to expect at the hearing and how best to conduct yourself.
Most in-person hearings are conducted in a small room that has a table for you and your disability lawyer, chairs for any witnesses you may bring, the judge’s table and typically another table at which any witnesses the judge requires will be seated. There will also be a hearing assistant present, whose role will be to record the proceeding. In envisioning the setting, think more of a conference room than a courtroom. Although the hearing is less formal than a courtroom trial, many of the same type of legal issues are covered.
The hearing typically begins with the administrative law judge introducing those who are present and allowing you to introduce yourself and your disability lawyer. Next the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) recites a brief summary of the issues to be decided in the case, and any new medical evidence that may be available can be submitted. At this point, you will be sworn in, at which point you must remember that your testimony is given under oath. After your testimony, the ALJ will pose questions to any medical or vocational expert he or she has asked to testify. The hearing is most often of relatively short duration.
The Role of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
The Social Security Administration has specific rules and regulations regarding the entire disability process, including the hearing and the role of the ALJ. Despite this, each ALJ has his or her own style and preference in conducting the hearing. Some play an active and primary role in question the claimant, while others rely on the claimant’s disability lawyer for this. In any case, since the ALJ not only conducts the hearing but also decides your fate, it is essential that you make a positive impression and fully convey the impact your impairments have on your life. This can be the single most important factor in the disability decision.
Even though the hearing is not a formal proceeding, it is important that you treat it with the proper respect; this begins with how you dress. Business casual attire is most appropriate. In fact, it is a good idea not to dress too nicely, as this can give the ALJ the impression you are well and ready to return to work. On the other hand, dressing too casually may create the sense that you are not taking the matter as seriously as you should.
It is a normal response to be nervous at the hearing; most people do not like speaking in public. However, to the extent possible, it is beneficial to relax and try and pretend you are speaking to an acquaintance rather than an ALJ; you will come across as more believable. At all times, pay attention to what is occurring around you, listen carefully to the question asked and answer only what is asked. If more information is required to advance the issues in your case, your disability lawyer will prompt you with follow-up questions.
The importance of being truthful cannot be overemphasized. Many claimants make the mistake of believing they need to exaggerate their symptoms to win a favorable judgment; avoid that pitfall. For example, a claimant suffering severe pain may say that he or she is in “constant pain” and “nothing can be done” to alleviate it. In reality, that is almost never the case; pain is more likely to come and go and increase and decrease over the course of a day. The ALJ knows this and is likely to view with skepticism extreme complaints. With that said, however, it is important to clearly state what you can and cannot do; do not minimize your symptoms. Explain exactly what your limitations are and contrast the way in which your life is different now than before the onset of your impairments.
Many people begin the SSD application process alone, although they are entitled to retain counsel at any stage of the process. If you have made it to the hearing, you are placing yourself at a disadvantage if you proceed without a disability lawyer. This is especially true if your case will involve the testimony and cross-examination of expert witnesses. Give yourself the best opportunity for a positive outcome; retain an experienced Social Security disability attorney.